In the skies far from Arizona, Hunter Renfrow made a phone call that somewhat doubled life’s pleasure and responsibility.
With his Clemson teammates on the way to play Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Renfrow called a breeder in Asheville, N.C., to reserve a golden retriever puppy.
“This dog has been keeping me busy,” said Renfrow, who experienced the greatest sky-high moment in his football career and went from walk-on to Clemson legend in doing so.
With the Tigers on Alabama’s 2-yard line with one second to play in the 2016 National Championship game, Renfrow caught a touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to give them a 35-31 victory and their second national championship. The first came in 1981.
It was the second straight year for Clemson to reach the national title game, and with his two-yard game-winner, Renfrow named his puppy Deuce.
“[The name] was a combination of a lot of things. It was cool how it came to fruition,” said Renfrow.
Cool-headed was how Renfrow lined up in what he called the “defining moment” of the game and season.
“I didn’t want to let my teammates and coaches down,” he said. “I wanted to go out there and give it my all that play. I remember thinking, I have done this in practice a thousand times. So I am standing there, I don’t want to get out-leveraged by the defender. So I come up pretty patiently. I know that Artavis Scott would do his job and get in the way a little bit. I could rub against him and get free for a touchdown. I envisioned spring practice of last year doing that play. Dormant grass is what popped in my mind. I visualized dormant grass.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said, “That moment he caught the winning touchdown pass epitomizes what our program is all about. You’ve got the 5-star quarterback (Watson) throwing the game-winning TD to walk-on wide-out (Renfrow).”
Renfrow said that he could not describe the feeling he had when he caught the pass.
“It’s something that I can’t put into words. I dreamed about it my entire life.”
Renfrow did not toss up a prayer before the play.
“I am always talking to God throughout the game. I prayed a lot before the game and during the game. When I lined up, I knew it was in God’s control that whatever His plan for this play was better than mine; whether I dropped it or I caught it, it was not going to define me as a person. Hopefully, by catching it, it would bring glory to Him.”
During a nationally televised post-game interview, Renfrow said that it was his faith in God that got him to Clemson and to that point in his life.
“It’s all about Him. If we had lost the game, it would still have been about Him. It was the comfort and not the pressure of the game. There are far more important things in life, whenever your dad is sick or you don’t know where your next meal is coming from — that is pressure. Running out there to do something you do every day is fun. You serve something greater than yourself and greater than the game.”
Sports Illustrated published a photograph of the reception on its cover. Watson (No. 4) was in the background after throwing the pass and Renfrow (No. 13) was stepping into the end zone.
Signing more than 2,200 copies of the cover, Renfrow puts the Bible verse Philippians 4:13 beside his name: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“It’s never ‘I am a football player who is a Christian,’” said Renfrow. “I am a Christian who plays football. This is how I try to live. God comes first on my priority list. Football is after family. As long as God stays at the top, it doesn’t clash. It’s not words coming out of my mouth — hopefully, the way I carry myself reflects Christ living in me.
“Jesus means everything. If football ended tomorrow or I had a storm to come up in my life, He is going to be steadfast, and He is always going to be there for me. I don’t have much pressure. I don’t have many worries, knowing that God has been here forever and is going to be there forever.
“I know if I caught five touchdown passes or fumbled five times, God is going to love me the same. There is comfort in knowing that you can play freely.
“Jesus is the reason why I have been able to achieve my goals. The pressure would have been insurmountable. I don’t know how I could have done it without my faith in Jesus. Football is a great game, but it doesn’t bring happiness and fulfillment like God does. Life is about God. It’s not about me. It starts and ends with God. I think God’s purpose for me is to go and make disciples of all nations, that is what He says in the Bible, and to reflect Him in everything I do.
“In a time where satisfaction in the moment is so prevalent, I can show God’s steadfast love to everyone.
“To be able to have God come live in our hearts and have the Holy Spirit is always comforting [in] that you have that peace of God with you. Jesus would be there for me, no matter what happens.”
Teammate Darien Rencher, a running back from Anderson, S.C., attends Bible studies with Renfrow.
“Hunter lives out his faith by working excellently,” said Rencher. “The Bible is very clear on allowing your peers to see the evidence of your faith in the quality of your work, and his career thus far backs that up. As well as him bringing positive energy to the team, he is always smiling and calm.
“He’s not the most vocal but definitely makes up for it by leading by example. He is definitely an inspiration because he shows what hard work and good techniques can get you, regardless of how talented you are.”
Said Renfrow, “If I wasn’t a Christian, I would not be at Clemson.”
Before his senior year at Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, where he was coached three seasons by his father, Tim Renfrow, Hunter attended a football camp at Clemson.
While he had full scholarships to Furman and Appalachian State, he was walk-on status at Clemson.
On the ride home, he began to tear up while considering the situation.
“I always wanted to play with the best in the country and not wonder if I was good enough,” he said. “I realize this could be a stepping point in my life.”
“Thirty minutes into the ride home, I wiped my tears and put a smile on my face, realizing that I was excited to have the opportunity to earn a scholarship instead of being given one,” said Renfrow, who caught a career-high 10 passes against Alabama, the most against the Tide in four years. He caught seven passes in the 2015 national game against them.
“Another thing from my relationship with God: It felt right. Coach Swinney is a Christian, as well. They try to lead this program in that manner. For me to grow as a believer and as a man, I thought it was the right place for me. I let God lead me and [am] available to [be] where he wants me to be.”
Earning a scholarship before the 2015 season, Renfrow (5-11, 180) has kept the faith.
“There wasn’t a low point,” he said. “I never remember being discouraged or feeling I couldn’t do it. I always believed that I could play at this level. If I wasn’t good enough, it was not going to be the end of the road for me. I still had so much more at Clemson.”
Said his quarterback, Watson, “The sky’s been the limit for him.”
— Bill Sorrell is pastor of First Baptist Church of Whiteville, Tenn., and a freelance writer. Reprinted with permission from Lindy’s Football Annual.